fulfilling my 2021 goal to read one ARC each month i’d been so excited to get my hands on and then…never read
this first novel is a little bit rickety in its construction, but there’s no damn doubt that chanelle benz can set a scene:
Billie gets out and tours the parking lot. Each tenant has distinguished their room by the way that they cover the long window beside their front door. Some are sealed tight with tin foil, others with a printed sheet, but her uncle’s window on the second floor is bare. A few people are sitting outside of their doors on plastic chairs. Nothing moves except for a can or cigarette. The light from passing cars gives their faces the sheen of old masters paintings. Hendrick ter Brugghen’s Melancholia. The contemplation and the shadows. Nothing is happening but a wanting something to happen.
when the grandmother she barely knew dies, bequeathing her some money, a dog named rufus and the thirty-years-abandoned home in greendale, mississippi where her father once lived, billie james leaves philadelphia and heads for her father’s hometown in the mississippi delta and the house she now owns, where she will confront her past and learn the truth about her father’s death.
billie’s mother, a white medieval studies scholar named pia, died of cancer when billie was nineteen, and her father, a black poet/activist named cliff, died when she was four. when her parents got married in 1970, interracial marriages were uncommon (and still illegal in mississippi), and her mother understood the particular challenges billie would face as a mixed-race individual, telling her “You’ll never be white enough or black enough for some people.”
their marriage was short-lived, and when they separated, her father returned to greendale. four-year-old billie had been visiting him when he died, although she remembers very little from that time. her mother whisked her away before the funeral, and she has had little contact with his side of the family since then, and only foggy memories of the south.
during her stay, she visits her uncle dee, reconnects with her cousin lola, and meets some of her father’s old acquaintances, from whom she learns that not only was she there the night he was found in his yard with his head bashed in, but she had been reported missing following the discovery of his body.
“I’m sorry. I don’t want to hurt you. But I do wish I knew more of what happened. What he was doing out there, what I was doing.”
He looks at her. “You don’t remember nothing?”
She shrugs. “I was asleep, I guess.”
He bends forward, rubbing his temples. “Well, baby, you in the right place ’cause nobody round here remembers anything either.”
a big truth statement, although for many of the locals, forgetting the details concerning a black man’s death has been a somewhat deliberate choice.
going through her father’s things, billie discovers the second chapter of an unpublished memoir her father had apparently been writing about his time as a freedom rider during the civil rights movement, which, along with her questions about her own disappearance, leads her into an investigation into the circumstances of her father’s death, ruled a drunken accident. in this endeavor, she is accompanied by dr. melvin hurley, a black studies scholar who is writing a biography about billie’s father.
local law enforcement aren’t too keen when these outsiders start sniffing around for answers; and scrutiny about a black man’s death stirs up all the southern discomfort around race, history, and slavery. the weight of the past is a particularly fraught burden ’round mississippi, as lola reminds billie:
“You’re definitely not gonna be living here full-time, right? You don’t want to be hanging around with folks still mad they lost the Civil War.”
Billie almost spits out her whiskey. “Oh my God.”
“Girl, I’m serious…It’s like this: white people have invented their fears about us and tried their damn best to make them true, but our fears about white people have always been real. White people have always had conspiracy theories about black people, because you can’t trust the people you’re trying to hold down.”
the past can be too close for comfort, coupled as it is with the inescapable interconnectedness of small southern towns, and lola cautions billie about the squickiness of her interest in her neighbor harlan, whose family and billie’s have a complicated history going back generations:
“Billie, you don’t want to get with the great-great-grandson of the man who raped your great-great-grandmother.
lola is the verybest character.
the multiplicity of POVs allow for a broad range of perspectives on cliff’s death and the town’s racial climate, historically and presently. melvin’s perspective, as a northern outsider, is particularly memorable:
He will of course be told that he is not from around here. It happens multiple times whenever he visits. Embedded in this phrase is not so much a reference to his accent or his (cosmopolitan) wit, but to his unexpected lack of deference. The way in which his posture does not ask if his body is allowed to take up its space. Or sometimes, in more casual interactions, they’ll say You don’t see color. The utter irony of this has always struck him, as he told his partner last night on the phone. On a certain level it seems like the only way they can explain him is to imagine he is safe from being reminded at any moment of the weight of his color—little peltings he calls them—like being hit with rotten eggs when he didn’t even know he was onstage. Even now, even now in his early fifties, these small displays of hostility have the ability to take him by surprise. He still finds himself asking if it is really happening. Did that flight attendant really ignore him? Did that white woman really clutch her purse and cross the street? Did that cabbie really stop and take one look at him then drive away?
like her short story collection, The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead, there’s some excellent writing here, but it’s got some first-novel flaws—more character POVs than are necessary (there are NINE! and one is a building), a perfunctory romance subplot, and some darlings that needed killing, but for me, the big one was an underdeveloped central character; billie is fairly undefined, so her late-novel shift in behavior reads a bit unconvincing.
still and all, the awkward bits are more to do with construction and development than writing chops, and hers are more than strong enough to carry the novel, which has a satisfying, unexpected conclusion, and i’m anticipating her next novel with extreme pleasure.